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Let craziness ensue for East's final 3 spots

3/25/2015
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Middleton's Buzzer-Beater Lifts Bucks

Khris Middleton's 3-point shot as time expired gave the Bucks an 89-88 victory over the Heat.

MILWAUKEE –- Erik Spoelstra still looked shell-shocked long after seeing Khris Middleton complete an improbable and stunning fourth-quarter comeback for the Milwaukee Bucks with a buzzer-beating 3.

The Heat coach admitted earlier that morning Miami knew exactly what was at stake on Tuesday night.

The Michael Carter-Williams edition of the Bucks were sinking at an alarming rate in the Eastern Conference playoff standings. Once looking like a lock to make the playoffs, the Bucks dropped six straight going into Tuesday night, and Miami was putting the heat on Jason Kidd's youngsters in the seventh spot and closing.

"We are very aware of the standings," Spoelstra said at the Heat shootaround on Tuesday.

Hours later, Spoelstra's Heat were handed what could be a stinging blow to their playoff chances. Not only did Miami squander a 16-point fourth-quarter lead, the Heat also may have lost their rising center Hassan Whiteside for some time due to a gash between the fingers on his right hand that required 10 stitches and multiple pain-numbing shots.

Spoelstra probably could have used something to numb the agony he was feeling on Tuesday night. The Heat coach knows how things in the East can turn as fast as LeBron James can pen an essay on why he's returning to Cleveland.

With three weeks left in the season, the playoff race in the East might be as crazy as Tuesday night's finish in Milwaukee. With six teams all in striking distance of the final three spots, the East playoffs have basically already begun for the Bucks (35-36), Heat (32-38), Celtics (31-39), Hornets (30-39), Pacers (30-40) and Nets (29-40). Heck, we probably shouldn't count out the Pistons (27-44), either.

Each game now is so critical, and something tells us the Bucks-Heat game might be a preview of more drama to come.

"It's been a fight for us," Dwyane Wade said of the East's bottom half of the playoff standings. "We have been in a fight since the All-Star break. For every team, it is going to be a fight to the last game."

The Bucks were all but dead on this night at the start of the fourth quarter. The sparse crowd in Milwaukee was flat, and Kidd's nursery of inexperienced players looked overwhelmed by the stakes. For second-year infants like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Carter-Williams, this was basically a playoff game. And they struggled badly at times, combining for 12 turnovers. Carter-Williams fouled out with 7:41 left in the game.

But pressure can even get to champions like Wade. The Bucks didn't stop defending with their never-ending length. And soon, an 81-65 Heat lead with 9:53 left was gone with 1:20 to go.

Wade somehow came up with a loose ball and turned it into a layup. Moments later, Wade was fouled and the Heat vet looked poised to seal this game not far away from where he starred at Marquette.

But with 17.5 seconds left, Wade made his first foul shot but missed the second, giving the Bucks life down 88-85. After Ersan Ilyasova made one of two free throws seconds later, Michael Beasley seemed to have the defensive rebound and game secured in his hands.

But Milwaukee's Jerryd Bayless also got his hands on the ball and forced a jump ball. The 6-foot-3 Bayless won the tip over the 6-9 Beasley to the dismay of Spoelstra.

Bayless drove and missed, then a mad scramble ensued for the rebound as the clock was winding down. Somehow, Zaza Pachulia beat the Heat to the ball, saved it as it was heading out of bounds and threw it right to Middleton out on the wing. Middleton then did something no player has done since Kobe Bryant in 2009-10, according to ESPN Stats & Information: He buried his second buzzer-beating 3 in a season.

The Bucks had missed potential game-winning shots three times in the past two weeks before Middleton found the bottom of the net. The shot set off a wild celebration, Milwaukee's version of "One Shining Moment" as Bucks players went flying from all over the court and onto Middleton.

Meanwhile, Spoelstra and the Heat stood and watched in disbelief for several moments.

"Everything that could go wrong, went wrong," Wade said. "It's got to be the perfect storm. Everything went exactly as planned for them, from the save from Zaza to the right guy -- and a guy who doesn't need much time to get it off and doesn't jump on his shot."

"That is the way the cookie crumbles."

Fortunately for the Heat, there's no one-and-done in March in the NBA. The Heat, in fact, left Milwaukee for Boston, where they will play the Celtics in another must-have game.

Spoelstra wouldn't have it any other way. He knows what's at stake.

He just hopes basketball karma will be on his side Wednesday and for most of the remainder of what could be a wild finish in bottom of the East playoff race.